obstacle. All of the horses in Smith's group died as they crossed the
The men climbed on foot over the San Bernardino Mountains and
stumbled, ragged and half-starved, into the Spanish Mission on the
San Gabriel River, about 35 miles from here. Padre Jose Sanchez
welcomed them to the mission, providing new clothing. The clothes
were undoubtedly made by the Tongva (called Gabrielino Indians by the
Spaniards) who lived at the mission. Smith returned East via the
Central Valley and Great Basin.
In the fictionalized "Into the West," there are nuggets of truth,
like the story about a grizzly ripping off Smith's scalp. However, it
didn't happen on the trip to California; it occurred earlier in 1823.
In the miniseries, it is our hero, Jacob Wheeler, who sews it back
on, but in reality, it was a young man named Jim Clyman who performed
the makeshift surgery. Clyman thought Smith's ear couldn't be saved,
but Smith insisted he try.
According to Clyman's later account, "I put my needle sticking it
through and through and over and over, laying the lacerated parts
together as nice as I could with my hands."
The surgery to close the wounds caused by the grizzly bear's teeth
and claws was performed without anesthesia and without antibiotics,
yet Smith was back leading his men within a few days.
In early 1828, Smith and his party traveled up the San Joaquin and
Sacramento valleys of California. They had 300 horses purchased at
The Central Valley was a wetland paradise in those halcyon days,
full of birds and beaver. Grizzlies too. Smith was attacked twice in
April 1828. He escaped the first time by diving into the creek. The
second time, a grizzly grabbed his horse's tail. The horse lunged
frantically to escape, dragging the bear 50 yards before it let go.
Smith was killed by Comanches in 1831 at age 32, before he had
time to publish the journal and maps of his California adventures.
This relegated his accomplishments to the shadows of history.
California has changed dramatically since the days of those early
American trappers. The wetlands of the Central Valley were drained
long ago, and the grizzlies were extirpated. The West is now a far
We hope you look beyond the trite script of the visually stunning
"Into the West" and watch it to recapture the ambience of our great
land as it was a relatively short time ago.
* VIC LEIPZIG and LOU MURRAY are Huntington Beach residents and
environmentalists. They can be reached at email@example.com.